Keep Those Banners Ready by alendar

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									Keep Those
Banners Ready
The challenges of the new
early childhood agenda




                        M i c h a e l a KRo n eMa n n




aT l o n g l a sT, there is a national agenda for early childhood education in
Australia. While governments had been working together on early childhood issues
through the National Reform Agenda for some time, it is only with the election of the
Rudd Government that there is now a federal commitment to a national plan for early
childhood education and care. Despite the recognition by the Council of Australian
Governments (COAG) that early childhood issues should be a national priority, the
Coalition had made clear in the lead up to the 2007 federal election that they consid-
ered funding for preschool education to be a state matter.
    The Rudd Government has committed to providing universal access to15 hours
of government-funded early childhood education in the year before school, to be pro-
vided by university qualified early childhood teachers. National standards are to be
established through a national quality framework, including an Early Years Learning
Framework.
    Funding will be provided to establish 260 early learning and care centres,
including six autism centres, located at primary schools, TAFE institutes and other

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      PROFESSIONAL VOICE ‐ Volume 6 Issue 2

     community spaces. A National Early Years Workforce Strategy will be developed,
     including additional university places in early childhood education. The 2008 federal
     budget provided for a 50 per cent HECS remission for early childhood education
     teachers working in regional, remote or disadvantaged areas, as well as fee exemp-
     tions for Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas delivered by TAFE. There will also be
     additional childcare places, an increased childcare tax rebate and a range of other
     measures including the rollout of the Australian Early Development Index.
         In total, the 2008 budget committed $2.4 billion over five years for early child-
     hood initiatives. In addition, both early childhood education and care have been
     made the responsibility of the new federal Department of Education, Employment and
     Workplace Relations (DEEWR).
         The Victorian Government has been a leading player in the development of the
     National Reform Agenda, and early childhood education has at last become a priority
     in this state. The establishment last year of the Department of Education and Early
     Childhood Development (DEECD) marked the long-awaited recognition of the rightful
     place of preschool education within the education system, and the need to increase
     participation, particularly among disadvantaged groups, and to enhance early inter-
     vention programs.
         The plans to develop schools as children’s and community hubs, to improve
     transition programs and the networking of services, and to develop a 0-8 learning
     and development framework are all positive and important initiatives. Also of impor-
     tance are the measures taken to improve the affordability of preschool education for
     low income families and to increase access by three and four-year-old Indigenous
     children. The revised regulations, which are intended to improve quality standards
     through measures such as improving staff-children ratios and qualification levels, will
     be in place by May 2009 although their content has not yet been determined.
         These new directions are long overdue. Other countries with similar early child-
     hood structures historically, such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand, are well
     ahead in the process of reform and increased funding of early childhood education
     and care. The recently released OECD Education at a Glance report indicates that in
     2005, Australia spent 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-primary education, compared to an
     OECD average of 0.4 per cent and a European Union average of 0.5 per cent. Both the
     2001 OECD review of early childhood education and care in Australia and the 2004
     Independent National Inquiry into Preschool Education found that early childhood
     education was fragmented, inconsistent, and of varying quality.
         The Australian Education Union must be acknowledged for the determined and
     strong campaign it has waged both nationally and perhaps most particularly in
     Victoria for a national plan for universal early childhood education as an integral part
     of a high quality public education system. Many of the key elements of the AEU plan
     released a decade ago in Towards a National Plan for Preschool Education have been
     addressed in the new directions offered by governments.
         However not all of the AEU’s policy objectives have been addressed in full. While
     the move to 15 hours of universal access for one year is a great step forward, the

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 Michaela KRoneMann
 keep those banners ready

2007 AEU Early Childhood policy calls for the development of a plan to provide access
to 20 hours of free preschool education for two years for all children in Australia.
    AEU policy called for priority to be given to Indigenous children in providing two
years of early childhood education. While the Victorian Government has determined to
provide free access for three-year-old Indigenous children, as indeed most other states
also offer, the Federal Government has been conspicuously silent on this measure,
despite the fact that this is a goal already endorsed by CoAG.
    Moreover, the new directions in themselves pose some challenges for the sector
and for members. And we can be certain that there will be at least some devilry in
the details.
    The Federal Government has made clear that early childhood education will be
offered in a range of settings, including specific programs offered by childcare pro-
viders. The aim is to end the historical divide between education and care. This is a
laudable goal, which is also recognised within AEU policy, since many children in
childcare are currently missing out on early childhood education. It is disappointing
however that there appears to be little interest in providing explicit support for public
education as the priority for governments in ensuring an inclusive, equitable and
democratic view of education. The Federal Government has dismissed issues related
to public and private education across the sectors but that does not mean that the




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problems go away.
    In the early childhood sector, the reality is that the majority of childcare places
are now provided by large scale for-profit companies listed on the stock exchange.
Education has historically operated on a not-for-profit basis and the inclusion of for-
profit providers is unprecedented. The potential implications for affordability, quality,
equity and for the capacity for early childhood services to network and collaborate
need to be explored. Will community-based stand-alone preschool centres be sup-
ported to enable them to provide longer hours care? Will for-profit centres be the only
provision is some areas? Could parents be forced to enrol their children in private long
day care centres in order to access early childhood education? Will public preschool
education be privatised over time?
    The federal commitment to provide an additional 260 early learning and care cen-
tres on school and other community sites is silent on the types of providers that may
be involved. The decisions about their location will be made in partnership with state
governments. Most states already have co-located or integrated preschool provision
in schools and in some, such as Tasmania and the ACT, community childcare centres
are also co-located in a number of schools.
    Victoria has also made a commitment to expand the role of schools as commu-
nity hubs and to locate early childhood centres on school sites. It will be important
to encourage the co-location of these federally funded centres on to school sites in
Victoria and to ensure that they are government or community-run so that the services
can work together comfortably. While integration, rather than simple co-location with
schools, carries some challenges (such as the need to retain early childhood leader-
ship positions), it would ensure far greater support for staff and programs and would

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      PROFESSIONAL VOICE ‐ Volume 6 Issue 2

     deal with the current issues around centre management as well. Victorian proposals
     to encourage local networks of early childhood providers are welcome, but these must
     be properly resourced. Experience elsewhere indicates that relying on the goodwill of
     over-stretched practitioners to maintain these links is not sustainable.
          The ALP federal election platform proposed that all four-year-olds would be eligible
     to receive 15 hours of government-funded learning programs, which seemed to indi-
     cate that it would be free. Subsequent statements have described the aim as making
     it “affordable”. There has been no detail as to what this will mean although it is clear
     that the funds will be directed to the states for dispersion. If the preschool year is not
     going to be fully funded and free, will the existing inequities between states be main-
     tained? In NSW and Victoria, where preschool education has not been fully funded as
     an intrinsic part of the public school system, government subsidies have been paid to
     centres and costs to parents without access to health care card related concessions
     are much higher than in other states. In Queensland the sessional preschool year
     offered in state schools has been translated into a full-time prep year and fees there
     too are high for children who access a pre-prep year of early childhood education
     through community and private providers. So will the preschool year be made free for
     all children and if not, how will equity be delivered within and across systems, and
     how will costs be curtailed in the for-profit long day care centres?
          The commitment to 15 hours of early childhood education is a positive and wel-
     come move, but there are of course professional and industrial issues to be resolved.
     Any effort to increase teaching hours would exacerbate existing workload pressures
     and have an impact on the capacity to recruit and retain staff in the sector. In Victoria
     there have already been reports of preschool teachers moving into school employ-
     ment and of high burnout rates and turnover of staff in long day care centres. It would
     also of course have an impact on quality, which is one of the priorities of the new
     framework.
          At the same time, further casualisation or underemployment in an already precari-
     ously employed workforce is unacceptable. The move to increase hours for children
     must be implemented with sufficient funding to ensure both the wellbeing of existing
     staff and an ongoing capacity to attract and retain teachers and other staff into the
     sector. The sector is already experiencing shortages across the board, particularly of
     qualified staff.
          The Victorian Government has established scholarships to help attract teachers
     into long day care centres and into early childhood education in disadvantaged areas.
     These are welcome strategies but the bottom line is that all early childhood services
     will be unable to retain early childhood teachers if there is no parity of pay and condi-
     tions with teachers in schools. It is already hard enough to attract and retain teachers
     in preschool settings; it will be even more difficult to attract and retain them in long
     day centres unless the pay and conditions are significantly enhanced. That in turn
     would require significantly increased funding. One significant step that would assist
     in beginning to address these issues is, in consultation with stakeholders, to transfer
     the employment of early childhood teachers and assistants to DEECD.

20
 Michaela KRoneMann
 keep those banners ready

     Even with these various measures, it is going to be quite a challenge to recruit
and train enough new teachers over the next five or so years. While some childcare
educators may be encouraged and supported to undertake enhanced training to
become teachers, there will also be additional demands for diploma qualified staff
in childcare settings. Given recent government discussion about abbreviated teacher
training for university graduates in the schools sector, the challenge will be to ensure
that there is no diminution in the requirements to achieve qualified teacher status.
Teacher registration could assist in this.
     The concept of a national Early Years Learning Framework is in principle a positive
one, provided that it is agreed by stakeholders, is sufficiently flexible to allow local
educational needs to be met, and is adequately resourced. A national quality frame-
work is also proposed and the issues there will be about what is included and how
it is assessed. Staff qualifications, child to staff ratios and group sizes are key indi-
cators of quality but other issues being considered include leadership and manage-
ment; relationships between staff and children; family and community partnerships;
differentiated play-based curriculum; and physical environment. The challenge here
will be to ensure not only that minimum standards are not set too low (especially as
they can sometimes then become the norm) but also that states are unable to under-
cut any agreed standards. A quality rating system is also proposed for consideration,




                                                                                            eaRly yeaRs eDUcaTion
although the potentially negative impacts are at least acknowledged. One question
is whether that would or should apply to all early childhood settings. Consultations
have been occurring and members should ensure that their voices are heard in the
ongoing processes.
     These are exciting times for the early childhood sector but clearly there are many
issues still to be resolved. Some will undoubtedly be problematic so it is important to
engage with the issues, stay informed, and keep the banners dusted — just in case.




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